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Right whale safety, one pot at a time

‘Whale-friendly’ lobster pots and fishing gear are among the measures being taken to reduce mortality

‘Whale-friendly’ lobster pots and fishing gear are among the measures being taken to reduce mortality

Capt. Peter Hanlon watched from the beach as right whales skimmed along the surface of Cape Cod Bay, their open mouths scooping up zooplankton.

“This is an amazing event,” says Hanlon, a Massachusetts Environmental Police officer. “It is the largest pod of right whales that I have ever seen.” Drawn by a bumper crop of copepods, more than 70 right whales were grazing on the bay in mid-April, gobbling down the tiny shrimp-like crustaceans by the ton.

Hanlon had anticipated their arrival. Beginning in January, he and two hired lobstermen scoured the bay for illegal lobster pots. Single pots, abandoned pots, pots with floating instead of sinking ground lines, and lobster pot buoys without the “weak links” that let them break away when a whale grabs one in its mouth — all are deemed threats to the endangered whales when they are in the bay. Whales can become entangled in the lobster pot lines, and unless they shuck the line, they can drown or gradually die from infection or starvation.

Gear rules for Cape Cod Bay — a critical habitat for right whales — try to minimize the web of entangling lines in the water column. Lobstermen can’t abandon pots or leave them in the water unused. Active pots, modified to meet the whale rules, must have an orange marker on the buoy stick. Ground lines strung between pots must be the sinking type that fall to the bottom where they won’t snare a whale. A ban on single pots during the Jan. 1 to May 15 whale season reduces lines. Strings of five, 10 or 20 pots tied together with sinking ground line and marked by a buoy at each end are encouraged instead.

The lobstermen on Cape Cod Bay have pioneered the use of these “whale-friendly” pots and traps. First used on parts of the bay in 1997 and adopted for all Massachusetts waters last year, the whale-saving lobster and fish traps are mandated now for most fisheries along the East Coast, with some waters exempted. Many of the regulations went into effect in April. The most controversial one — sinking ground lines — becomes effective Oct. 5.

Gill nets also must comply with anti-tangling rules. They must have sinking or neutrally buoyant ground line, weak links on buoys and tear-away net panels — again, with some waters exempted. The regulations are mostly year-round in New England. Farther south, they are seasonal — Sept. 1 to May 31 in the Mid-Atlantic, and Nov. 15 to April 15 and Dec. 1 to March 31 in different parts of the Southeast.

In Massachusetts, the whale-friendly gear “has helped the whale and eliminated some of the ways they get in trouble,” says Bill Adler, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association. Adler says his lobstermen were willing to make the gear changes with financial help from the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the federal government, which together paid for 80 percent of the new, more costly sinking line — their biggest expense.

Yet what’s been done already in Massachusetts pales beside the scale of the job ahead in Maine, Adler says. Massachusetts has about 1,000 lobstermen who work some 350,000 traps in state waters and another 100,000 in federal waters. “Maine has 4 million traps in the ocean and 7,000 lobstermen,” he says.

At a Senate hearing in Brewster, Maine, early this year, 200 lobstermen told Sen. Olympia Snowe there’s no way they can change over to sinking line by Oct. 5, which is right in the middle of lobster season. They said there’s not enough line either on the shelves or in the production pipeline to refit all the traps and nets and that they, too, want help paying what they expect will be an average $9,000 bill to change over the hundreds of traps each works.

There’s also the small matter of how to dispose of the old line. “All that rope could be stretched from here to Las Vegas,” Adler says. He says the industry is investigating recycling the polypropylene line into faux wood.

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association is lobbying to delay implementation until after the 2008 lobstering season, but the writing is on the wall: Sooner or later, lobstermen and fishermen are going to have to comply with the whale rule. Hanlon’s lobster patrol pulled more than 500 illegal pots out of Cape Code Bay earlier this year. Two lobstermen believed responsible for 340 of those pots face criminal prosecution and loss of their licenses, Hanlon says. More charges could follow. “We’ve stepped up enforcement very seriously this year,” he says.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service reports 133 large whale (right, humpback, minke and fin) entanglements and 26 entanglement-related whale deaths along the Eastern Seaboard and Canadian Maritime Provinces between 2001 and 2005. Endangered North Atlantic right whales have gone from negative population growth to 1 percent growth over the last few years — showing perhaps some benefit from conservation efforts — but they still number only around 300, according to Erin Burke, a protected species biologist for the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. The improvement is scarcely enough to sustain the species.

“These are inshore coastal animals, and there’s a lot of gear out there,” she says. “Seventy-five percent of the right whales have scarring from entanglements.”

Some drown when they get tangled in line. Others drag the line around so it slows them down, girdles their growth, cuts into their flesh, prevents them from feeding, causes infection and becomes “chronically fatal,” she says.

The gear changes are a “tough transition,” Burke says. “But we’ve been doing it [in Massachusetts] a long time. It’s kind of old hat for us. I do believe it’s doable.”

Whale-friendly fishing gear isn’t the only big change on the horizon to help the beleaguered whale. From 2001 to ’05, ship strikes caused some 27 whale deaths along the East Coast, according to the Fisheries Service. A NOAA whale rule setting speed limits around East Coast ports for vessels down to 65 feet has been languishing for more than a year in the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. The World Shipping Council, representing mostly foreign carriers, has objected to the rule, which sets a 10-knot speed zone 30 to 80 nautical miles seaward of ports from Jacksonville, Fla., to Boston at times of the year when right whales are nearby. Whale-watching boats, headboats, sportfishing yachts, megayachts, fast ferries and others would be affected.

Last July, the east-west shipping lane into Boston was shifted 12 degrees north to direct vessels around part of Stellwagen Bank, where a large number or right whales congregate. Also last July, NOAA adopted another rule banning gill netting off Georgia, South Carolina and northeast Florida during right whale calving season, approximately mid-November through mid-April.

It’s not easy for whales and people to share the same waters. In April, when the right whales were grazing in Cape Cod Bay, two of them were sighted making their way east through the Cape Cod Canal with a cruise ship tailing them. The whales reached the bay before the cruise ship could overtake them, but the close encounter was dramatic, says lobsterman Adler. “The ships can’t change course, and the whales don’t get out of the way,” he says.



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